Over the course of this season, I’ve talked a lot about how one of the raw pleasures of The Borgias is in watching the generation of its various schemes. And the reason why these schemes are so satisfying to watch is because few of them are ever abandoned, as the petty and vindictive nature of its characters means that they either need to see them through to the end or kill the instigator before the plots against them can come to fruition. Last year, the penultimate episode of The Borgias was the episode that forced two of the episode’s three central conflicts to a terrific climax as the family forced its enemies to account for their insults. Friar Savonarola was forced into a trial by fire and dragged to Rome in an iron cage, and—in a scene that remains the apex of the show—the fraternal feud between Cesare and Juan was resolved on a moonlit bridge as the former sent the latter into the Tiber.
“The Gunpowder Plot” doesn’t reach the heights that “World Of Wonders” did, chiefly because the conflicts of the third season have felt somewhat watered down in comparison. As good as Gina McKee is as Caterina Sforza, her plotting lacks the immediate challenge to Borgia rule as expected, a more subtle game that may be more satisfying intellectually but without the bombast of Savonarola. And the conflict between Alexander and Cesare lacks the venom of Cesare and Juan, especially as Alexander’s continued refusal to give his son command feels increasingly like it’s being drawn out by the writers for the purpose of generating tension. Lucrezia’s plots have been more interesting given that the character has more agency than ever, but the payoff to her plans has been short term rather than long game.
Not that this means it’s unenjoyable to watch these plots resolve, in fact it remains satisfying as ever. The episode starts off strong with another of The Borgias’ trademark spectacles of debauchery, as Naples holds the Festival of Bacchus complete with an elaborate wine fountain that Cougar Town would be impressed by. It’s Lucrezia’s invention, and one she spices up by adding the elderly herbalist’s sleeping potion to the brew and making sure that everyone drinks deeply of it, even her silent guards whom she greets with a sweet smile and “gratitude for their vigilance.” And then cut to a few hours later and we get a rare glimpse of the ruthless hangover this pageantry creates, everyone collapsed in stairwells and over tables, allowing Lucrezia, husband, and child to leave the city quietly. (Adding hilarious insult to injury, Lucrezia gives the herbalist and the party staff full permission to loot the passed-out guests.)
The carriage tears out of Naples in the cover of night, and coincidentally passes Cesare and his force of condottieri, heading to mount their own rescue mission. Brother and sister are reunited, and the reunion winds up being far closer to their encounter in “Siblings” than common sense should dictate, and embraces, which the condottieri can’t help but crack jokes about. It’s a sign of the tensions both are under that they leap into each others arms, and a sign of how this unnatural affection has only grown with their absence. The looks from both Cesare and Lucrezia have gone from longing to smoldering, and both project an attitude even in public that shows how tired they are of pretending. Not that this affection comes without its own burdens, as Lucrezia’s stalked by her brother’s condottieri wherever she goes—this time legitimately for her own protection, but no less annoying in her eyes than Frederigo’s guards.
And the degree of Cesare’s affection doesn’t go unnoticed by his brother-in-law. As Lucrezia’s most consistent paramour to date this series, Alfonso of Aragon has had a mostly thankless role in the Borgia family, selected as a third or fourth choice for alliance purposes and treated like a kept pet by a wife who makes all the most important decisions. Sebastian de Souza has done an admirable job showing the evolution of Alfonso’s thoughts on the matter, going from bewildered that this beautiful woman would choose him to stressed at her family machinations to frustrated that she has lost any physical interest in him. His range expands even more with the realization that his wife may be intimate with her brother instead of him, after everything else they’ve put him through, and seems to be setting him on a dangerous course. Certainly, one has to be half-mad to have a friendly duel with Cesare and refuse to back down. Juan tried this in “The Borgia Bull” and it was only by Micheletto’s cooler head that he walked away unscathed; with the assassin MIA, Alfonso has no such safety net. His only protection from Cesare’s contempt at this point is that the latter deeply desires not to hurt his sister.
Sparks are flying within his immediate family, but Alexander for the moment has little interest in those events, turning instead to the fire of war machines. His meticulous planning with Mattai has led to the decimation of the Turkish fleet, ending the crusade before it even needed to begin, allowing Alexander to pocket the funds for himself. A portion of these savings he now turns to further securing his position, identifying the sulfur mines of Solfatara Caldera as the key ingredient in the gunpowder that his enemies need to fuel their armada of cannons. Once again he begs Mattai’s assistance, this time in buying up the full supply under the guise of a Christian merchant. The relationship between Alexander and Mattai—two men of different faiths and equal pragmatism—has been an unexpected pleasure of this season, and it’s especially interesting to watch the conflicting emotions roll over Brendan Cowell’s face as he sheds the signs of his faith for the greater good. (And to his credit, Alexander keeps all his comments about making Mattai a Christian in jest, showing the respect he holds the other man in.)
The sudden shortage of gunpowder resources is felt both in Forli and in Rome, with both Caterina and Cesare suspecting the other of a stockpile but neither thinking the other is smart enough to consider that plan. The latter however is in a better place to investigate, and dispatches his condottieri to find out what’s going on. I was skeptical early in the season of how the show could characterize all of these wayward nobles that we hadn’t seen before, but over the course of these episodes there’s been enough details fleshed out to separate them at a glance and explain why they’d throw in with Cesare over Caterina when they don’t like either one. (Fear remains the key motivator, as Gian Paolo Baglioni says best: “I love my hide more than I hate him.”) It’s a development from the loose mercenaries Cesare organized in “Stray Dogs,” and proves his evolution toward being a leader and not just a tactician.
And “The Gunpowder Plot” also manages to recapture some of the fire from last season’s penultimate episode, as one of those nobles—Prospero Colonna—tracks the trails of yellow dust to Mattai’s warehouse and tries to recruit his brother swordsmen to take the sulfur supply for themselves. Baglioni has other ideas though, a betrayal well shot as the two men head down a tunnel to the warehouse while the rest of the condottieri are slowly closing in. (The fact that none of these rogue nobles truly like or trust each other keeps coming up, particularly in a fine exchange when Gian Paolo’s choice is revealed. “Why my friend, why?!” “Because my friend, this is what we do.” “We are connoisseurs of treachery.”) Cesare then cements the fear they hold him in by covering Colonna in shovelfuls of sulfur powder, dragging him out to the courtyard and setting him alight to create a literal Roman candle.
Following the demonstration of strength, Cesare demands Mattai tell him the identity of his employer, only to find the Jewish merchant expert at deflection, raising his frustrations to just the right level that learning his father is behind it has him beating doors down in rage. And here Mattai proves his diplomatic gifts work on the son as well as the father, as he says he can convince Alexander to give Cesare the command he so desperately craves. The pope’s interest is stoked early by Mattai’s talk of a man with “talent to burn,” but upon seeing his son as the man in question a wall of ice closes over his eyes. A whole season of tension continues to simmer, as Cesare asks how Alexander could dare keep this a secret and Alexander counters by asking how he could dare bring a French army into Italy. Mattai attempts to find a common denominator between their faiths by offering various Biblical tales, but all either man can see in them is reflections of their own feuds: Alexander angrily mutters that Cain murdered his brother too, and Cesare points out Abraham nearly threw his son’s life away.
The anger swells between them, Mattai’s pleas grow ever more desperate, it reaches a point where something has to give, and what gives is Alexander’s resolve in one brutal yell: “HE IS ME! All the fire, the fury, the drive, the pitiless ambition. I look into his eyes, I see myself! Do you expect me to love that?!”
It’s an epic moment—possibly the most honest bit of acting Jeremy Irons has done for the entire series save possibly his crisis of faith last season—and one that leaves all the parties involved stunned into silence. Alexander questioned his son’s parentage with Vanozza earlier this season, and this confession reveals that he was asking these questions with a slim hope of other possibilities, that Cesare’s ruthlessness may come from somewhere other than the loins of Rodrigo Borgia. And Cesare, for his part, is stunned at the realization that his father may not love him because he hates himself, a sobering realization for someone who for all his bluster only wanted the approval of the man he thought was larger than life. Both men beg forgiveness, for themselves and for each other, and as happened in “World Of Wonders,” once again Cesare hugs a family member tightly to him. Only this time, both are hanging on like drowning men, clutched in a mix of grief and relief and emotions held too tight to stay inside any longer.
The resolution is a raw emotional climax, and the one time all season that these two men have felt like father and son. And united for the first time, absolving each other of their sins towards each other, it’s a certainty that they’ll be creating some new ones against the rest of the world to speed it towards the “great reckoning” Lucrezia sees on the horizon.
- Micheletto grants Pascal’s wish to die in his arms, a gorgeous sequence where he slices his traitorous lover’s wrists open to slowly bleed out—blood pouring down his checks in their final embrace—and then vanishes from Rome wrapped in grief. (And in an even more heartbreaking detail, he writes the word “GOODBYE” on the floor in blood: Pascal’s final act to write the word in chalk so the illiterate assassin could follow the directions.)
- Some clever directorial flares from Neil Jordan this episode, both in the movement of the condottieri shadowing Lucrezia through Rome’s streets and Cesare’s lurking outside the door frames as Mattai tries to persuade Alexander.
- Lucrezia’s no longer the child she was in the first season, but there remains an impish glee to how she regards her power: “We are in a fairy tale, and the witch is me.”
- Cesare feels the loss of Micheletto keenly, even with his condottieri assembled. “Can one of you replace him? Don’t even try to answer that.”
- Of the many stupid things Alfonso does in challenging Cesare, mentioning Juan is probably the stupidest. “Did you love your brother?” “I did. Mightily.” I’m not sure if he’s baiting Cesare with the rumors of who really killed Juan, but either way it’s playing with fire to the same degree Prospero Colonna was.
- Julian Bleach remains stubbornly absent from the season’s action, but Rufio reveals that he is keeping the Medici neutral in the coming conflict: “Machivaelli will do nothing.” Caterina: “His nothing is worth a lot.”
- Alexander: “You would ask me to continue down the road?” Cesare: “There is only one road, and that is forward.”
- No road forward for us, unfortunately. I’ve avoided bringing this up for the entire review, but I suppose it’s time to acknowledge the elephant in the Vatican here: Showtime announced The Borgias is cancelled. Next week’s episode will be not just the season but the series finale, as both a fourth season and the possibility of a wrap-up movie were dismissed by the network and Neil Jordan. We’ll cover this in more detail next week, in what will be (sniff) our final discussion of the series.